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Second Place In The Democratic Primary Is Crowded — That’s Not Good For Sanders

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup. Hope you didn’t miss us too much over the holiday weekend.

Poll(s) of the fortnight

You’ve probably heard that the first Democratic primary debate was bad for former Vice President Joe Biden’s polling numbers and good for Sen. Kamala Harris’s and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s. But what about Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s long been second to Biden in the polls? Well, his standing appears to be slipping — and his runner-up status is now in real danger.

For example, a CNN/SSRS poll conducted in the days after the debate gave Sanders 14 percent of the vote, which was down 4 points from late May, when CNN/SSRS last polled the primary. And a Quinnipiac poll from after the debate gave Sanders 13 percent of the vote; earlier in June, the pollster had him sitting at 19 percent.

Granted, not every poll showed Sanders losing ground. According to Reuters/Ipsos, Sanders enjoyed the support of 15 percent of Americans a few weeks before the debate and 16 percent right after it. And the poll we partnered with Morning Consult on to track debate reaction in almost real time found Sanders’s support virtually unchanged from before to after the debate. But RealClearPolitics’s overall polling average does suggest that Sanders did indeed lose a couple of points from the debate.

And his standing might be even more endangered because Warren and Harris improved so much that they are now in a rough three-way tie with Sanders for second place. That’s a problem for Sanders because there are now two newly competitive rivals whom he needs to vanquish to win the nomination. Your baseball team may be only a few games out of first place, but if four other teams are too, it hurts your odds of finishing first; not only must you perform well, but you also need multiple other teams ahead of you to stumble.

More importantly, Sanders is arguably in a worse position than Warren and Harris are, despite their nearly tied horse-race polling. And that’s because someone with near-universal name recognition like Sanders needs to be polling higher to have a good shot at winning the nomination (or at least that’s what our research on historical early primary polls has found). On the other hand, lower-name recognition candidates like Warren and Harris arguably have more room to grow than Sanders does, as there is still a pool of potential supporters out there who haven’t heard of them. And unlike Sanders, Warren and Harris both outperformed their polling average in the first half of 2019 when you adjust for name recognition.

Another potential pitfall for Sanders is that he has so far limited himself with a campaign strategy that doesn’t appear designed to expand beyond his base. But to win the nomination, he’ll need to win over some new fans — especially if he keeps losing old ones. Ardent progressives have more options (most obviously Warren) to choose from than they did in 2016, and Sanders may have underestimated how much of his 2016 support was simply a protest vote against Hillary Clinton. An Emerson College poll out this week found he was getting only 25 percent of the vote among those who said they supported him in 2016.

So yes, Sanders is going through a rough patch — but he could still recover. With eight months until the first ballots are cast, there is plenty of time for him to change campaign strategies. He certainly has the money — a reported $30 million cash on hand, plus the proven ability to fundraise even more — to go on the offensive again. Then again, so do his rivals — Warren reportedly raised even more money than Sanders in the second quarter. Sanders might want to act quickly to turn his campaign around, as his margin for error is rapidly shrinking.

Other polling bites

  • In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week, support for Roe v. Wade (the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s legal right to an abortion) has tied its all-time high in their polling — 60 percent of Americans. Notably, Democrats (specifically, 71 percent of them) were more likely than Republicans (57 percent) to say abortion would be an important issue in their 2020 vote for president, yet another sign that Republicans may have lost their advantage in this arena.
  • In the first poll we’ve seen of the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in Colorado (one of the Democrats’ best pick-up opportunities), former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff took 23 percent, Secretary of State Jena Griswold (who isn’t running — yet) took 15 percent and former state Sen. Mike Johnston took 12 percent. The poll was conducted by Keating Research and Onsight Public Affairs but paid for at least in part by supporters of Griswold.
  • A new study from Pew Research found that 64 percent of U.S. military veterans do not think the Iraq War was worth fighting. In addition, 58 percent think the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting, and 55 percent say the same about U.S. involvement in Syria. The numbers are almost identical among the general public.
  • YouGov researched the walk-up songs of 23 presidential candidates (the music that plays when they take the stage at rallies) and asked respondents to pick their three favorites. President Trump’s “God Bless the USA” took first place with 28 percent of the vote; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” took second with 18 percent, closely followed by Sanders’s “Power to the People” (16 percent).
  • Also according to YouGov, 28 percent of Americans said it is “very likely” the government is hiding information from the public about UFOs. Another 26 percent said it was “somewhat likely.” Now I’m just thinking about what the aliens’ walk-up music would be.
  • A new Nanos poll, released Tuesday, found that 35 percent of Canadians plan to vote for embattled Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party in October’s parliamentary elections; 30 percent plan to vote for the Conservative Party, 18 percent for the New Democratic Party and 9 percent for the Green Party. Then, on Wednesday, Mainstreet Research also released a poll putting Liberals at 35 percent and Conservatives at 33 percent (the NDP and Green Party took 10 percent each). The polls were a surprise because Conservatives have long been leading in the polling average, although that advantage has narrowed in recent weeks.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.5 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 52.4 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -9.9 points). At this time last week, 42.3 percent approved and 52.5 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -10.2 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.0 percent and a disapproval rating of 53.0 percent, for a net approval rating of -11.0 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 6.4 percentage points (46.3 percent to 39.9 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 6.1 points (46.2 percent to 40.1 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 5.8 points (45.9 percent to 40.1 percent).

Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.

CORRECTION (July 12, 2019, 10:14 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Canada’s New Democratic Party as the National Democratic Party.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.